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When O Is Better Than A+

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    Organ transplants are tricky. Blood type is one piece of the puzzle. Scientists hope to make more organs available for every blood type.
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    These donor lungs were treated with enzymes to change their blood type at Toronto General Hospital Research Institute. (University Health Network)
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    Blood types are determined by the presence of antigens on red blood cells.
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    Leftover antigen material on donor organs can cause rejection.
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    Sarah Murnaghan, right, with her family, waves after arriving home from the hospital in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Sarah Murnaghan got new lungs. Scientists hope to help more people like her. (AP/Matt Rourke)
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Researchers are making steps to close the gap between donor organ supply and demand. They’ve made a breakthrough in addressing the cause of organ rejection—and that could make more organs acceptable for transplant into patients awaiting a life-saving match.

Donor organs have been in short supply for nearly two decades. This supply chain challenge is not related to ships, trucks, or trains. It’s due mainly to the matching process. Organ transplants are tricky. A many-pieced puzzle involving size, tissue health, previous infections—even freezer burn—must be solved to make a match that will help, rather than harm, the recipient. Another major piece of that puzzle relates to three little letters: A, B, O . . . oh yeah, and “Rh.”


Blood type. Unless your parents wrote it down at birth or you have needed surgery or a transfusion, you may not know yours. But this seemingly simple piece of information, not even as unique as a fingerprint, is of extreme importance in life-or-death situations.

Blood types are determined by the presence of either a sugar or protein (called antigens) on the surface of our red blood cells. But the word antigen broadly refers to “any substance which triggers an immune response.” That’s a response in which the body seeks to fight off what it perceives as an invader. (See Family Self-Tests for Science for more on immunity.)

While good in fighting off a virus or a bacterium, when it comes to food or pollen, this response is called an allergy. When related to an organ or other tissue transplant, it is called rejection. (See Pig Heart Sustains Man’s Life at teen.wng.org/node/7390.)

Foreign agents—ahem, “antigens”—are key to understanding the process of organ rejection. Blood types A, B, and AB all leave antigen material behind on organs. Blood type O, which is antigen-free, can be universally used. The same rule applies to organs.

In the face of blood and organ shortages, wouldn’t it be great to have more of the universal type?

That is exactly why the study results are so exciting. Honing their efforts through trial on a pair of lungs (the most challenging organ to transplant), scientists used digestive-tract enzymes to strip the antigens from the organ. The antigen-trimmed lungs transformed to become like the base-model blood type O: universal . . . able to be used by all.

Amidst a pandemic-related blood supply crisis and continued donor organ shortage, the positive result couldn’t be more timely. For those awaiting lung transplants, the news is a breath of fresh air.

Why? Jesus commanded His disciples to love one another with a radically generous love (see John 15). We as His disciples pray for those involved in life-giving research and ask how we might serve in His perfect timing.